Two species of intelligent robots have moved into one of the best properties in the Thames: Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Collectively named aerobics, the floating spheres created by New York-based artist Anicka Yi to inhabit the cavity are called planulae (the hairy, bulbous ones) and xenojellies (those with patterned tentacles). Inspired by sea life forms and fungi, the helium-filled forms move around with rotors and a small battery pack. Together, they create an “ecosystem” in the museum, Yi says, interacting with their environment and visitors and displaying individual and group behavior.
Behind the scenes, an incredible amount of technology and research drives this fluid family. A team of specialists has developed the aircraft using software that gives each one a unique flight path. The software, called an artificial life program, generates a large variety of travel options that the spheres can take, and therefore simulates the somewhat unpredictable processes in natural life. This type of technology is commonly used in scientific studies, but has also been used to create lifelike visual effects and animations.
The robots respond to the space and people around them by receiving information from electronic sensors located around the room. The signals affect them individually and as a group, so they will behave differently at each meeting. “Like a bee dance or an ant’s scent trail, the aerobes communicate with each other in ways we cannot understand,” a Tate Modern statement said.
In addition to returning machines – albeit of a completely different kind – to the empty stomach of Turbine Hall, the heart of the former Bankside Power Station, Yi also uses his aerobes to question ideas about intelligence and our focus on the brain as its main transmitter. . “Most AI works as a mind without a body, but living organisms learn so much about the world through the senses,” she says. “Knowledge that comes from being a body in the world and engaging with other beings and environments is called physical intelligence. What if AI could learn through the senses? Could machines develop their own experiences of the world? Can they become independent of humans? Could they exchange intelligence with plants, animals and microorganisms? ”.
“Yi’s installations are unforgettable and use the latest scientific ideas and experimental materials in unexpected ways”
Frances Morris, Director of Tate Modern
The second element in Yi’s work is the use of fragrance: the artist has “sculpted” the air by creating what she describes as “fragrances”. A combination of odors emitted into space will change during the weeks of commission, as will the behavior of the robots in residence. Yi has chosen scents inspired by the history of the Bankside area around Tate Modern. These include marine scents from the pre-Cambrian (the earliest in Earth history), smells of vegetation from the Cretaceous (about 145 million to 66 million years ago), scents of spices used in the hope of counteracting black death in the 14th century, and the smell of coal and ozone from the industrial revolution.
The scents should remind visitors of our connection to our environment and to each other. “Yi is interested in air policy and how this is affected by changing attitudes, inequalities and ecological awareness,” the museum’s statement said. “Space is not empty, but filled with the air we all share and on which we depend.”
“Yi’s installations are unforgettable and use the latest scientific ideas and experimental materials in unexpected ways,” said Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern. “The results not only engage the senses, but also tackle some of the big questions we face today about humanity’s relationship to nature and technology.”
• Hyundai Commission: Anicka Yi: In love with the world, Tate Modern, London, until 16 January 2022 (free but reserved tickets required)